Puns…more than fun

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The following is a condensed version of a presentation I gave to a Michigan Reading Association conference. The title of the talk was: You Have to See Funny to Write Funny

 A sense of humor is really important in life for a number of reasons:

  • Look in the ‘personals’ almost every request for a man includes ‘a sense of humor’
  • Humor is social grease – jokes bring strokes. People like people who can make them laugh especially if the humor is PC and geared to the audience and the moment (for you writers that’s PAT : Purpose Audience and Tone).
  • Humor is a way to express strong feelings of aggression or hate in a socially responsible way. If it happens to offend someone, we can always say…”I was only joking.” It helps us feel part of a group as we tease or lampoon an opposite gender, political party or management/ worker relationship.
  • Humor is a way to cope with stress…personally and in the workplace. We can diffuse a lot of situations with the right, well-placed remark that helps us all get a little perspective.
  • Laughing even has some reputed effects on our immune system and general health
  • Humor is even a way to share problems and invite empathy as we joke about aging, or marriage, or raising kids.

So if humor can do all these things for us why shouldn’t we try to encourage a sense of humor in the children we raise or otherwise encounter as teachers, librarians and extended virtual family members? Especially if kids have a ready-made interest in humor at a stage in their developmental process.

 Let’s explore some of the stages of children’s humor:

 Between 2 and 5 years of age children find the following things funny:

  • Misuse of a familiar object
  • misnaming things
  • playing with the sounds of words
  • combining real world objects in weird word combinations (banana car)
  • pictures of unreal actions (cow pushing carriage)
  • Gender reversal ‘Jimmy is a girl’
  • Physical humor (Charlie Chaplin movie)

Basically, they’re noticing differences between the real world they know and expect and the variations from it. The cognitive dissonance strikes them as funny.

 But the next stage the 6 to 7 year olds all the way up to 11 year olds is really interesting.

 This is the stage Piaget describes as ‘concrete operational thinking’ when children begin to realize abstract concepts. The world is no longer only what they can see and touch. Six is not just six apples. It can also be 2 sets of 3 anythings. Or 3 sets of 2 anythings. And most importantly for us, this is the age when children realize that words can have more than one meaning…TaDaa…enter the riddle and puns.

 As parents and teachers we may not find these incursions into the world of double meaning words laughable or humorous. But for a child’s development of a sense of humor, if nothing else, it is a critical stage of learning readiness that we should try to exploit. Why? Because that’s the beginning of an adult sense of humor. Does this mean that we want to encourage children to turn into data bases of riddles to be downloaded on unsuspecting colleagues and family members into their dotage? No. Thankfully, kids outgrow riddles. But the skills encouraged and gained during this development stage can have long-ranging implications into adult life. The same way an introduction to music, art and sports in school can lead to life-long pleasure if not professional careers.

 Let’s look at what’s happening when children tell and re-tell riddles:

  • They’re discovering new words and situations. If they read a riddle, they have to know what certain words mean and what the context is or they ‘don’t get it’.
  • More importantly, they’re enjoying the intellectual activity of creating a link between two pieces of information that seem initially unrelated.
  • That’s power. That’s mastery in a world where teachers and parents have all the answers and all the control. It’s a heady experience to get a grown-up to say, “I give.”
  • And finally, as we mentioned earlier…a good riddle teller has social coin to be earned and spent the way some children get strokes for grades, musical or athletic ability. This is especially true for children who live in generational poverty where the ability to tell stories and entertain is highly valued.

 At this point I hope you’re not thinking I want to create a hothouse for class clowns. Could you imagine what it would have been like for the teachers who taught someone like John Stewart from the Daily show? No, what’s really operative here is the ability to engage in ‘divergent’ thinking as opposed to ‘convergent’ thinking. They’re learning to look at life from both sides now. To look for and find alternative meanings behind what they see and hear.  And this is extremely important for our economy and our country as we ask future generations to ‘think outside the box’ in a rapidly changing technological world. There are a lot of companies out there spending a lot of money trying to get their employees to think creatively and come up with novel solutions to the standard operating procedures.

So you ask…all this from riddles?

Maybe. My daughter taught English in China for a year. A dominant characteristic of the educational system was to teach and require uniformity and conformity in thinking. Creativity was not a value. If a class was asked to offer an opinion everyone waited till someone offered an idea then they all chimed in…agreeing. Sure and true answers were to be learned and repeated. Open ended questions were a way to lose face.

 Isn’t applied knowledge and relational thinking what we are being asked to develop in educational settings?

 But beyond that we’re using words and word play to teach kids to not take things absolutely literally at all times. This is the same dynamic at play in creative writing: poetry, imagery. We’re asking kids to juxtapose ideas and images that wouldn’t normally go together. In the case of humor because it then becomes funny/laughable or in the case of poetry the joining of previously unrelated images adds up to new insight, to beauty…the beauty of the written word and the joy of word play.

 Here’s a humorous story that I wrote for Mother Earth News on this topic…

Help for the Humor Deprived

going for the laugh

 “Hey, Rube, look at that man burning leaves,” I said, squatting to my son’s eye level and pointing to the fire that almost singed an above-ground swimming pool. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

My claim to immortality paused, thought. “He’s too close.”

“What might happen?” I prompted.

“Burn a hole.”


“Water’ll go all over the fire.” Rube chortled and clapped his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” I shouted, “My son likes your fire extinguisher.”

The leaf-burner studied his fire for a moment. Then he grinned. “Actually, I was trying a new way to heat the pool.”

There was a man after my own heart – a man with a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what I wanted to teach my son – to see the funny side of life. I never had any help as a kid. Everything I learned about whimsy, I learned the hard way – on my own. But my son was going to have it easy. I was going to teach him the joy of jokes the way some people teach their children to build a log cabin – step by step.

One of the first lessons was how to size up an audience. We were getting a pre-school physical when the pediatric nurse strapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm to show Rube that it wouldn’t hurt. I took the occasion to rub her wrist. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m just not feeling myself today.”

“Mr. Sandwich,” the nurse sniffed as she pulled herself to the full height of her indignation and marched out of the room.

“Now we know not to waste good jokes on her,” I explained to my son. “She was probably a deprived child. I bet her parents never played a joke on her or asked her riddles or even made puns.” I sighed. “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I remember the first time I encountered comically deprived children. I had just died – as us comedians refer to a joke that bombs – at my friend’s house, in front of his parents and grandparents. It was the old gag about why we put angels on top of Christmas trees. You know the one about Santa being all stressed out because the reindeer had hoof and mouth disease, and the elves were on strike, and Mrs. Claus had the flu when an angel bounced into the toy shop with a Christmas tree and asked, “Where would you like me to stick this, Santa?”

Everyone just stared at me. I quickly added, “So, from that day to this, the angel sits on top of the Christmas tree.”


You can’t blame the kids in that situation. They didn’t know any better. It’s the parent’s responsibility to introduce their children to the finer nuances of humor in our culture. Somebody needs to spend quality time with those kids loosening them up to the possibilities of word play, the surprise of the unexpected; not to mention the joy of a roomful of people groaning in unison.         

You can imagine my delight in another class-clown in the making when Rube came home from the first day of school and announced, “It’s a tough house, Dad.”

“And how’s your teacher.”

“Too damned sweet.”

“I prefer that you don’t use that word.”

“Okay. She’s too damned nice.”

My efforts were paying off. But like a good coach, I looked for every opportunity to challenge my star prospect. For example, one day at the beach, a live Barbie doll lay on her see-through air mattress in the shallow water. What caught my eye was the turquoise dog’s leash – I’m serious now, humor is not a laughing matter – that trailed from her hand straight into the lake. I nudged Rube and rolled my eyes at the floating princess.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

“She’s probably using it like an anchor rope, tied to a rock or something,” he offered.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” I coaxed.

Rube’s eyes started to dance. “Maybe she’s taking her catfish for a walk?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. Try again.”

Rube looked at me, grinned.

“Go for it.”

“Excuse me, lady,” my son said. “In case you didn’t realize… your dog’s been underwater for a long time.”

Some months later shopping for Christmas ornaments, my son and I priced a set of colored lights.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “$9.95 plus six percent for tax brings it to…”

“Tacks?” Rube inquired. “What do you need tacks for? Don’t you just loop the lights over the branches?”

I stopped. Studied my son. “Tax, as in income tax. Only this is a sales…” That’s when I caught the corner of his mouth twitching. He got me. He had me going. For a person who sees life as a stage and every person out there as an audience, you have to admit my son did me proud. He’s got the eye, the timing – whatever you want to call it.

When it was our turn at the register, the clerk checked my ID.

“James Sandwich,” he read aloud. “Interesting name. Ever think of working in a deli?”

I grimaced. How rude – taking liberties with my name.

“And what’s your son’s name? Ham? HamSandwich?”

“No,” Rube replied, “my name’s Reuben…”

My son stopped. Stared at me for a long time. He hasn’t told a joke since. And he was coming along so fine.

psst: if you are interested in more stories like this check out my , Free-Floating Stories, under the Fun Stories section


Jokes Bring Strokes

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Jokes bring strokes and verbal cleverness gets points in playground circles. Puns and other verbal by-play can be taken from the story and used to impress friends. An actual joke, if not too long or hard to remember, is a bonus.

From Can Do, Zan where a bear visits their campsite in the Minnesota Boundary Waters.

“Go! Get away from that food!” Nick shouted at the bear.

Like a turtle checking for danger, Zan slowly slid his head out the tent flap and aimed his flashlight toward the clanking and banging sounds. Two yellow eyes glared back followed by a deep rumbling sound like a truck starting up. Zan sucked his head back inside, zipped the door, shut off the flashlight and groped around for his shoes.

“Now, what are you doing?” Lazelle asked.

“Putting on my running shoes.”

“What for? You can’t outrun a bear in the woods – especially in the dark.”

“I don’t need to outrun the bear,” TJ shot back quickly. “I just need to outrun you.”

Gross is Good

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A good story for boys is never harmed by a dose of the gross, yucky and slimy as in this hazing scene from

Wa-Tonka, Camp Cowboys.

Nick felt slippery hands gobbing something cold and greasy in his hair, all over his body. It had a familiar smell – from the kitchen. Was it margarine? Close. Vegetable shortening, that’s what it was. They were pouring something else on his head and it was running slowly over his face, down his back. Sweet smelling, sticky, slow moving – they were dousing him with maple syrup.

Pushing the Envelope

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Because boys can be heard to ask in quick succession: ‘How do you do that?’ followed by ‘Let me try it?’ they enjoy stories with physical challenges such as sailboarding, bull riding, rappelling and the like. The characters model competence and skills that the reader can learn by ‘watching’—something he’s used to doing at playgrounds, skateboard parks and Gus Macker tournaments. Between the drive to emulate kinetic feats and the universal “I dare you,” good ‘boy stories’ have characters pushing the envelope. As in this scene from Zan, City Cowboy where Nick Finazzo attempts bronc riding for the first time.

Nick gripped the thick braided rope in his gloved hand, took a deep breath and a last look into the arena. Ramón waited on one side. Carlos on the other. Two of his buddies were out there. They would be sure to race over and help him off the horse. Riding on either side of the bronc, one would release the bucking strap – the rope tied just in front of the horse’s hind legs to make him buck. The other would help Nick slide out of the saddle to a safe landing. That’s if he stayed on till the buzzer. Ten seconds. Forever….

 In this scene, from Can Do, Zan, Alexander has more determination than ability as he tries to show he can swim at a summer camp.

 Zan jumped straight out over the water and managed to close his eyes and gulp a breath of air before he landed flat on his stomach. His gut burned, his face stung and all the air he had sucked in, shot out in a huge bubble. He clawed for the surface and took a huge gulp. Too soon. He got mostly water. Coughing and hacking he remembered to windmill his arms and twist his head. I’m doing just like the other guys, he thought. I’m swimming. See, I knew I could do it.

Skills Tell

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    Boys  can tell a lot about a person by how they play sports. If boys were in charge of personnel departments they would conduct job interviews by having the candidates play volleyball. Boys choosing sides in a pickup game are acutely aware of each other’s skill level. High drama is when a new guy shows up and has to audition for his place in the batting order. So, in boy’s stories, action is not just exciting, especially if it involves horses or other challenging outdoor sports, it tells much about the character and moves the plot along. Look for books and stories that play off skills and skill assessment rather than relationships. Here are a couple of examples.

Background: Nick Finazzo is impressed by Bobby Petzer to whom he has loaned his special  horse, Prince, for a Gymkhana event. Wa-Tonka! camp cowboys

He jogged Prince into a gentle canter in a small tight circle, almost like he was winding up a spring. Finally, on the third time around, at the precise moment when they were aimed straight down the course, he lowered the reins and Prince blurred by, heading down, coming back.

But what Nick really saw was the rider. In slow motion. It was his body. The way he moved with the horse. Helping him. Talking to him with his weight, posture and legs.

 In another story, Nick enjoys watching a loudmouth bully try to windsurf for the first time. Riding the Waves, Lake Michigan Cowboy.

 Roy bent to grab the up-haul rope and braced himself like an anchor-man in a tug-of-war contest. Muscles bulged – arms, thighs, upper back – fighting the sail’s grip on the water surface. Little by little, the sail inched upward. Roy kept pulling. The sail popped free. Roy rolled over backwards pulling the sail on top of himself.

Nick smiled to himself, waiting for the water-logged carpenter to reappear. Not everything’s about muscles. You’re fighting it big guy. Like riding a bike. It’s not about strength. You just have to get the hang of it.

Roy slapped at the water in frustration.

On the Spot Problem Solving

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       On the spot thinking and problem solving is as old as Hansel and Gretel and still engaging because children want to believe in the power of their minds and wills to control their world. To do that, they have to imagine themselves being resourceful and quick thinking. Harry Potter is always figuring out escapes and turn-abouts. The draw behind the Home Alone movies is that a kid can outwit adults. At critical points in a middle reader story, I picture a good teacher stopping and asking, “How would you solve this?”

       Here’s a scene from my novel, Zan, City Cowboy, where a kid thinks outside the box and outwits an adult in the process:

 Background: Carlos, faced with a flat tire on a loaded hay wagon, is trying to decide how he might jack up the wagon to put on a spare tire.

“You don’t need to raise the truck. You just need to lower the ground,” Zan said.

“What ?” Carlos demanded.

“Just put some logs under the axle.”

“And then…?” Carlos coaxed.

Zan looked at the wrangler as if the rest was obvious. Carlos shrugged – I don’t know. “What?”

Zan answered like a teacher explaining something for the third time. “You dig a hole under the tire. Put on the spare. Fill up the hole. Then you drive the truck away.”

       I think it’s important to look for stories that reinforce cleverness in action. And I think it’s important to challenge students to puzzle out solutions and write about them. Here’s another example of quick thinking to thwart a bully from Can Do, Zan:

 Background: Zan is in the principal’s office and later is confronted by the bully, Lazelle, in the boy’s locker room.

Inside the office, Zan had just sat down when the phone rang. Mr. Akers answered, “Oh, hello Mrs. Thompson. How can I help you?” Mr. Akers nodded in agreement. “I understand. Your son is frightened by the bullying he’s being subjected to.”

Bored, Zan studied Mr. Aker’s phone and memorized the number written on the front: 585-9905.

The head of the academy nodded several times, “I couldn’t agree more. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior. And I can assure you if I ever run across an older student harassing an underclassman I will come down hard.” Hanging up the phone, Mr. Akers paused. Stared out the window. Then, as if he suddenly remembered that Zan was there, he said, “What are we going to do with you, Alexander? You just don’t like patterned activity. But so much of life is based on just that kind of routine…”

 After gym class that afternoon, Zan heard Lazelle talking to his buddy on the other side of the lockers.

“That punk Zan thinks he’s bad with his cool gym shoes.”

Zan reached for Kyle’s Blackberry, punched in 585-9905 then set it on the bench while he hurried to finish dressing.

“Got some bad gym shoes,” Lazelle said grabbing one off the bench.

“Hey, leave my shoes alone, Lazelle!” Zan said, turning his head toward the phone. “Give me back my shoe, man!”

“You don’t know how to lace up your shoes,” Lazelle said. “Your laces are too loose,” he continued, pulling the laces tight, then tying them in knots.

“Hey, man, leave my shoes alone,” Zan pleaded.

“Your shoes,” Lazelle replied. “How do we know they’re yours? I don’t see no name on them. Seems like you should have your name on them. Right across the toe. Anybody got a magic marker?” the oversized eighth grader yelled.

Suddenly the principal appeared. “Is there a problem here, gentlemen?”

“No problem, sir,” they all answered in unison.

“Well, I have a problem with the behavior I just witnessed. Come to my office, Lazelle.”

As soon as Lazelle left, Zan gave Kyle a low five. His buddy grinned and turned off the phone.


Character Descriptions/Dialogue

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Character descriptions

Players in the drama of boy’s stories are more memorable by the impact they make than their hair color or body shape or clothes all of that is simple and two dimensional as coloring book outlines. What matters is the emotional freight a character carries, how they come across to my protagonists, as mean, angry, friendly, helpful. A single trait that embodies that dominant feeling is the key to describing the person. Action and dialogue add to it.


He reached toward the rim but couldn’t see the sky. An eighth grader hung over him like a tree with out-stretched branches. One of the limbs crashed down on the ball, on him…The eighth grader leaned over Zan, his face as dark as the shadow he cast with his blown-out Afro. “Don’t bring that stuff in here. This is my court.”

Can Do, Zan


As soon as Pete left, Zach crossed the road, wiggled into the dumpster and began tossing out pieces of plywood and useable scraps of lumber.

“Hey, what’re you doin’ in there?” a deep voice boomed.

Oh-oh. Now I’m in trouble, Zach thought. He peeked over the edge of the dumpster. A burly man walked toward him rocking from side to side like a stump-legged pirate. The man pulled a pack of Camels from the chest pocket of his faded purple T-shirt. He popped out a cigarette. Lit it.

“I asked you what you think you’re doing taking stuff off private property.”

Zach found his voice. “Just getting a few scraps. And I figured all this was going to the dump anyway so it wasn’t really stealing and I need the wood to make a box for all the things I found across the street at the Drake farm and I’m going to make a movie about all those things and my dad and the other Civil War reenactors are restoring the old house…”

The man scowled.

This isn’t working, Zach realized.

“This is private property,” the man growled. “I’m the construction manager for these buildings and you got no business trespassing here.”

Zach thought fast. The man reminded him of his dad’s carpenter buddies. He knew how much they liked to talk about their tools. “You don’t happen to have a saw around here, do you? A good one, like a Makita?”

“What’s that got to with it, kid?”

Zach knew he had to keep pushing. “Because the only kind we have at home is a handyman Ryobi. No guts. And I’m going to need a good saw to trim up these scraps.”

The manager squinted at Zach but half-smiled at the same time. “You got a lot of nerve kid. You ain’t borrowing no saw from me, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He flicked his cigarette and ground it slowly under his steel toed work boots, the shiny metal poking through where the leather was worn off. When he looked up, his face was dead serious. “If that’s all the lumber you need, take it and go. But don’t let me catch you sniffing around here again. You could hurt yourself.”

Tales From the Drake House Outhouse

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